Food & Drink

At Bristols Cider House, hard cider is back in style

A flight of ciders at Bristols Cider House in Atascadero. From left, Bristols Original, Scrumpy, Calico Jack, Black Bart and Anne Bonny.
A flight of ciders at Bristols Cider House in Atascadero. From left, Bristols Original, Scrumpy, Calico Jack, Black Bart and Anne Bonny.

A cider revival has begun, and one of the core leaders on the Central Coast is Bristols Cider. You can taste the company’s original cider at an increasing number of local spots, and now that list includes the recently opened Bristols Cider House in Atascadero, where you can try limited release ciders as well.

Located in an industrial park off El Camino Real barely a half mile south of the Atascadero Factory Outlets, Bristols’ pub-like tasting room sports several taps, comfy seating and a big-screen television that’s lately been tuned to all the World Cup soccer matches. An intriguing mural by local artist Adam Welch further sets the tone with a huge Union Jack flag painted over hundreds of images inspired by English history, specifically the city of Bristol and its famous urban graffiti artist/activist, Banksy.

Though fermented apple cider has been made for centuries, primarily in the Old World and the Americas, for some reason it fell out of favor stateside and the word itself became synonymous with a sweet, nonalcoholic juice. Recently, the hard stuff has come surging back into style (perhaps in part because it is a gluten-free product), but Bristols has been ahead of that wave for several years.

Originally conceived as a branch project of Lone Madrone Winery, both Bristols and the winery are co-owned by siblings Neil Collins and Jackie Meisinger — natives of Bristol, England — and Collins’ wife, Marci. The cider side of things got started in 1994, when Collins started pining for the true English version and decided to use his winemaking skills to make a few batches for family and friends. It was so well received that when they opened a Lone Madrone wine tasting room in 2006, Meisinger and the Collinses decided to pour it for the public.

“We just thought ‘Let’s see how it goes,’ and starting making it for the tasting room,” recalled Meisinger. “Over the last two years, it’s become so popular that we were having trouble keeping up with demand, and we were running out of room to make our wines.”

That prompted a search for a separate location, and after a bit of remodeling, Bristols Cider House opened on June 7. The tasting room also shares space with the production facilities, so when that ramps up in another month or so, people will be able to sip on the ciders while they’re watching new batches being made.

“We’d like it to be educational, like wine tasting,” said Meisinger. To that end, tasting flights are available so you can get a sense of the different aspects of each cider. Flavor profiles are primarily created through such techniques as adding hops, using finishing yeasts (all the ciders start out their fermentation on natural, ambient yeasts) and aging in either stainless steel, used white wine barrels or old bourbon casks.

While the Bristols Original Cider is a blend of several different apple varieties, most of the other seven that are currently available are made with a single type such as Granny Smith, Braeburn or Arkansas Black. Meisinger noted that “we’re always looking for more apple sources,” adding that it’s a crop that can be stored, so there isn’t the production urgency of something like wine grapes.

“We are growing fast,” said Meisinger, “but the ciders are still made in a hands-on, traditional style, and we’ll always keep it that way. We want it to be done the way we grew up with in Bristol.”